From Downtown to Guantanamo

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July 4, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

A local law firm has spent more than 1,000 hours defending an accused terrorist held in a U.S. prison in Cuba

Nicole Moen, a Downtown resident and attorney, has done a number of client interviews in her relatively young career, but never with her client shackled to the floor, in a foreign country, translating in French.

Moen is a member of a Fredrikson & Byron legal team representing Algerian-born Ahcene Zemiri, who is being held without charges in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. considers Zemiri an enemy combatant, seizing him in Afghanistan. Media reports link him to 1999's abortive "Millennium Bomber" terrorist strike on Los Angeles (see sidebar, page 9).

Moen and firm partners John Lundquist and Jim Dorsey, traveled to Cuba this spring to meet their client for the first time. Zemiri speaks French and Arabic. Moen is fluent in French and translated for Zemiri and the legal team.

"It is a very oppressive - mentally, emotionally - oppressive environment. It is very grim," Moen said of Camp Echo in Guantanamo Bay. Discussing the two-day interview, she said: "I don't normally lock eyes with someone and talk about very intense, very scary, very dangerous events for hours at a stretch, in any language."

In a U.S. District Court brief, Fredrikson lawyers assert Zemiri has never been part of Al Queda or any other terrorist group and, "did not cause or attempt to cause any harm to American personnel or property prior to his detention."

The petition said the government agents have tortured Zemiri. Human Rights groups have criticized the U.S. government for holding prisoners at Guantanamo without charges and for abusive interrogation tactics. Meanwhile, Defense Department Web sites point out significant intelligence gained from the detainees.

The Fredrikson firm already has spent approximately 1,000 hours on the case and the end is nowhere in sight. It is one of many firms volunteering to help individual prisoners. Lawyers are trying to force the U.S. government to bring formal charges against their clients or release them.

Lundquist said it is a "virtual certainty" that, with 540 detainees, a "goodly number" don't belong there.

"In any operation like this, mistakes are going to be made," he said. "That is why you can't just rely on the Executive Branch. I think the travesty is that we are not using the due process that our country is renowned for."

In an interview at their firm, Lundquist and Moen described how Fredrikson & Byron got involved in such a volatile international issue. They discussed their trip to Cuba - including a long wait in the hot sun before getting to see their client - and the two-day interview with Zemiri shackled to the floor.

"I have been to a number of prisons over the years," said Lundquist. "I have never seen security quite like this before."

Their first meeting with Zemiri in March faced any number of hurdles, including basic trust and language barriers.

A friend, an invitation and background checks

Lundquist traces his involvement in the case to Joe Margulies, who used to practice criminal law in the small Minneapolis firm Margulies & Richmond.

Margulies, now with the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School, was lead counsel in Shafiq Rasul v. George W. Bush, a case brought on behalf of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rasul June 28, 2004, writing, "federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the Executive [Branch]'s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing."

The ruling opened the door to numerous other detainee petitions, Lundquist said.

He and Dorsey knew Margulies, and Margulies called them to ask if they would help, Lundquist said. They discussed it with the firm, put together a team last summer and began researching the legal issues.

"On a more personal level, it has been professionally and personally rewarding," said Lundquist, who chairs the firm's health care fraud and compliance group, as well as its white collar and regulating defense group. "[We primarily] represent people with a lot of money and power, and corporate America. This is a nice opportunity to do something very different."

The firm has a larger team working on the case, but four key team members - Lundquist, Dorsey, Moen and Schneider - each had to apply for 'Secret" level national security clearance. Moen said they had to list every address and every job they had for the past 10 years and provide references to back them up.

FBI investigators interviewed each of them and more. The FBI called Moen's law school friend in Texas, a professor in Boston - even City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Moen said. (She worked for Goodman as a college intern in 1998.)

Lundquist listed references, "not thinking in a million years anyone would call them," he said. "I was mortified one day when a couple of these people called me and said, 'Guess who came by? The FBI was asking about you!'"

Investigators walked around his Linden Hills neighborhood asking neighbors about him. They even talked to his fishing buddy Ken Matysik.

Matysik said he has known Lundquist for at least 15 years. He talked to the FBI agent for 30 to 45 minutes. "The guy wasn't officious," he said. "It was low-key and straightforward."

The agent wanted to know about Lundquist's life and character, he said. He asked about Lundquist's hobbies, his political convictions, whether he went to church and if he had made any large purchases recently.

"I said, 'to John, a big purchase was a new canoe'," Matysik said.

'The package has arrived'

Lundquist, Dorsey and Moen flew to Cuba in March.

Guantanamo Bay bisects the base, Moen said. On one side is the Combined Bachelor's Quarters, where the visiting media and attorneys stay, along with other military personnel. It has a little bar and restaurant called the Clipper Club. You can get pizza there if you miss mealtime at the galley.

It was hot during the day. The scenery includes cactus; iguanas; and banana rats, large, opossum-like marsupials that come out and night, Moen said. "Most of the base is pretty laid back," she said. "Most people were very nice to us and friendly."

On the other side of the bay is Camp Delta, the prisoners' camp, and Camp Echo, where military personnel interrogate detainees and attorneys interview clients.

In the morning, the lawyers took a ferry across the bay. Escorts met them and took them to breakfast and then on to Camp Echo.

They went through a series of checkpoints, passed personnel with mirrored sunglasses and foreboding faces, Moen said. The camp itself has a high fence with an opaque green covering so you can't see through it. Razor wire rings the top.

"To get in, you have to go through three or four gates," Moen said. "It takes a really long time. It is irritating because time is precious when you want to interview your client. And even though they knew we were coming down well in advance, it took them a long time to get us in."

Inside Camp Echo, Lundquist said the ground is covered in crushed white rock. Someone had taken a stick or other tool and drawn lines to mark the walking path - and you had to stay inside the lines.

"We asked them why they had all this crushed rock and they said it was to be like a Japanese rock garden," Lundquist said.

Moen said it was difficult to walk on the rocks and called the environment "very stark."

"There is no shade. There are no trees. There is no vegetation. The sun just beats down and hits the white rock and it reflects back up," she said.

They stood in the sun waiting to meet their client. The first detainee guards brought was not Zemiri. They took him away and went back. Moen said they didn't start the interview until 11 a.m. or, after two hours of interviewing time was lost.

The guards finally returned with Zemiri, telling the attorneys: "The package has arrived."

Inside the shack

Small shacks line the perimeter of Camp Echo, the attorneys said. A guardhouse that looks something like a tollbooth with mirrored windows sits in the middle.

The interview took place inside one of the shacks, approximately 8-by-10-feet, they said. It had air conditioning but no windows, just narrow, Plexiglas-covered slits.

A mesh grate divided the room. On one side was a cot and toilet. The interview would span two days, and Zemiri would stay in the shack overnight rather than return to Camp Delta. The other side of the grate had a card table and four chairs.

When the attorneys entered the room, Zemiri was in an orange jump suit, seated and shackled to the floor. "He was sitting back; his arms were folded," Moen said. "He was looking at us, but he was pretty impassive. We were 4 feet away, but there could have been a wall between us."

Lundquist said part of the time the attorneys spent with Zemiri was just trying to build some trust. Detainees are highly skeptical of anyone coming to the camp saying they are there to help.

To ease that transition, Zemiri's wife had sent him a package as a sort of introduction, Lundquist said. It included a letter she had written, some pictures and items from the law firm.

When the attorneys arrived, Zemiri hadn't received the package, he said. The attorneys talked to their escorts, who looked into it. On the second day, they hand-delivered the package. "It had to be cleared through their screening process," Lundquist said.

The interviews lasted 11 a.m.-5 p.m. the first day, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. the second day, with some breaks.

By the end, Lundquist said he felt the attorneys "were fairly successful" at bridging the gulf of mistrust.

The attorneys never saw Camp Delta. They did not discuss what, if anything, they learned from Zemiri about camp conditions or his treatment, other than to refer to information contained in the court filing (see sidebar, below.)

Moen, Dorsey and Schneider traveled to Cuba again in mid-June for a second visit. Moen called the interview productive and said Zemiri was doing very well, under the circumstances.

War on terror

Volunteer attorneys have filed a number of similar petitions for other detainees, Lundquist said. It is impossible to say how long the case will go.

As Lundquist explained it, the U.S. government now argues that the Supreme Court ruling gave detainees the right to file their petitions, but only to file - it doesn't mean they can assert any rights.

A lower court sided with the detainees. The U.S. government appealed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case now sits.

What would the Fredrikson & Byron attorneys say to those who argue Guantanamo Bay has provided critical intelligence to keep troops safe?

"There is a better way of doing this," Lundquist said. "I think we all recognize the need to deal with terrorism. That is not an issue. That doesn't mean we have to throw the Constitution out of the window, and it does not mean that the enemy has to be abused by us.

"It doesn't mean that the Geneva Convention - that we are signatory to - should be ignored," he said. "I think we would all be better served if it [were] done with full due process because I think the government would find that the rest of the world would be more sympathetic and would be more likely to want to cooperate, instead of being appalled by what we are doing."

Who is Ahcene Zemiri?

When the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron decided to help defend a Guantanamo Bay detainee, they worked through the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which pairs volunteer lawyers with clients.

That's how John Lundquist and three other Fredrikson attorneys came to know Ahcene Zemiri.

Lundquist and Moen gave Skyway News few details about Zemiri, citing client confidentiality. They declined comment on what, if anything, Zemiri said about camp conditions and/or allegations of Quran abuse. Lundquist provided a copy of the court petition filed on Zemiri's behalf, which contained some details.

Between the petition and media accounts, two pictures emerge of Zemiri: victim and plotter.

According to the petition, filed Nov. 17 in District Court in the District of Columbia: Zemiri, 38, has been married eight years to Karina Dereshteanu, a Canadian citizen. They have a son, Karim, whom Zemiri has never seen. The couple moved to Afghanistan in late June/early July 2001. By November that year, they decided they had to flee due to fighting in the country.

The couple believed that Arab men were being killed at the border but heard women and children could cross safety into Pakistan. The two separated for her safety. Zemiri's pregnant wife did not hear from him again until July 15, 2002, when she received a "heavily censored" letter from Guantanamo Bay.

Zemiri's wife believes bounty hunters captured and sold him to American forces for $5,000.

The petition said Zemiri has had no military or terrorist training, has not been a member of Al Qaeda or other terrorist or radical groups, and has neither caused nor tried to harm American personnel or property.

An Internet search on "Ahcene Zemiri" found sites about his detention, and a sites that link him to Montrealer Ahmed Ressam, convicted for plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport in 2000 - the so-called "Millennium bomber."

According to the Associated Press, Ressam was convicted in April 2001 on explosives charges and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Facing up to 130 years in prison, he began to talk.

According to a Jan. 9, 2004 Boston Globe story, "In testimony in U.S. court in 2001, Ressam implicated Zemiri in the plot and 'provided him $3,500 to help pay for the mission.'" (The Globe story relied on information from the Toronto Globe and Mail.)

Canadian media reports said in court testimony, Ressam referred to Zemiri as a "close friend."

Lundquist said that Zemiri has never been charged with any crimes arising out of the alleged "Millennium" bombing attempt - either in Canada or the U.S. "He [Zemiri] knows Ressam, but little more can be asserted about the alleged connection," Lundquist wrote.

The key question for Lundquist is, will Zemiri get a chance to contest the allegations in court?

Zemiri's petition said the U.S. is violating his international and constitutional rights. He has been imprisoned for approximately three years. The petition said Zemiri has been:

- Held in conditions of isolation;

- Placed in constant vulnerability to repeated interrogation and severe beatings;

- Kept in cages with no privacy;

- Shackled with heavy chains and irons;

- Placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods for minor rule infractions;

- Interrogated while shackled and chained in painful positions;

- Exposed to extremes in temperature;

- Subject to violent behavior or the threat of violence;

- Threatened with rendition to countries that practice torture;

- Sexually humiliated;

- Denied access to counsel and family;

- Deprived of adequate medical care; and

- Subject to repeated psychological abuse.

According to a June 5 New York Times story, Fredrikson & Byron was asked to take second client, a reputed Taliban field commander. It declined.

Moen said the cases are very time-consuming. Lundquist said he did not want to elaborate beyond what the Times reported.

Hundreds of detainees have been released from Guantanamo Bay since it opened, as they were considered unimportant or no longer threatened U.S. interests, a May 2, BBC report said.